Perusing a forgotten area of New Orleans in 1977, Granville Semmes came upon a Creole cottage in disrepair at 1510 Religious Street. Intrigued by the dilapidated peninsula of antebellum architecture, he rapped on the door to find an unlivable first floor and an old lady on the second, renting for $153 per month. He purchased the cottage, gutting the first floor and commencing a thirty-year project as a warden of history.
Eager to acquire 510 Race Street and its “slave quarter” for many years, Mr. Semmes did not buy the two until August 2003. Throughout the renovations, he immersed himself in research through the Historic New Orleans Collection, poring over the letters, diaries, and images of those who may have inhabited Race & Religious. Vicariously living many lives through the research, he pieced together the story of his home, woven inextricably into the fabric of New Orleans.
The property is a relic of an older Louisiana, of which few glimmers remain. Originally within a row of three, the Greek-revival row-house at 510 Race St, as well as its four-brick-thick “slave quarter”, were built in 1836. A row of Creole cottages followed in 1843, of which 1510 Religious Street remains. Constructed as tenements for middle class families, the history of the homes is undiluted and common to the city. Located in the 500 block of the riverfront, the houses were built with bricks of Mississippi River clay, baked along Tchoupitoulas Street, a former Indian trail. Diaries and letters from the period tell of a neighborhood of butchers and railroad families, drunken sailors and Creole orphans. Race Street then ended in a racetrack and Orange Street is the namesake of an orange grove, cultivated by Ursuline nuns.
Though faced with a property in disrepair, Mr. Semmes augmented the authenticity of Race & Religious without compromising livability. Preserving 95% of the moldings and details, he elected to leave some staircases unvarnished, maintaining traces of prior residents. French tiles and other inputs were typically 150 to 200 years old, highlighting European design elements indigenous to the property. Semmes outfitted the homes with old Italian and antique country French furniture, such as the Renaissance dining table, hewn of a single chunk of walnut, and the Basque deux corps, carved by a celebrated craftsman. Extensive travels, both actual and literary, are apparent throughout, from the Buenos Aires wrought-iron gates and stained-glass doors, to the Seville-inspired box bay window, to copious Oriental rugs and Soviet Realist movie posters, to the Peruvian tabernacle and the leper-carved armadillo.
Louisiana poignancy rings strong within Race & Religious, present within the history of the homes, the religious themes, and much of the art. A gem of Religious Street, the statue of the blessed Virgin was salvaged from a bulldozed church and found by the Semmes on a Waveland porch, braving the elements. Family is also threaded into the property, from family photos to paintings by daughter Elsie Semmes, to murals of the city executed by friend Steve Richardson and others, to whimsical works by Blake Boyd.
The thirty-year Race & Religious project began with a rich canvas of antebellum tradition, which Semmes improved upon, to highlight its uniqueness. Each renovation, piece of furniture, and design element is playfully purposeful, capturing the attention of visitors and redirecting it to other eclecticisms. A masterpiece of nostalgia, Race & Religious is a love song to New Orleans, a whimsical European fairytale, a spectacle of design, and foremost, a family home steeped in history.